The PAP smear is a screening test for abnormal cells on the cervix or vagina. Named for the inventor of the special stain, Dr. Papanicolou, this test has saved millions of lives and detected cervical cancer in its earliest stages. It is performed by using a soft brush and spatula on the cervix or vagina to collect the microscopic cells.
Pre-cancerous cell changes, called dysplasia, are abnormal changes in the cells that may develop into cancer. Pathologists rate the degree of abnormality and group them into low grade dysplasia and high grade dysplasia. Another category of mildly abnormal cells is called ASCUS- Atypical Squamous Cells of Undetermined Significance.
PAP screening is recommended beginning at the age of 21 and the frequency of testing will depend on your age and previous history of abnormal results. For the vast majority of women, an abnormal PAP smear does not lead ultimately to the diagnosis of cervical cancer. If your PAP is abnormal, your provider will recommend further evaluation via a colposcopy and/or biopsy. Most low grade dysplasia will resolve on its own but your provider will want to continue monitoring on a routine basis. More severe abnormalities will require treatment to remove the abnormal cells.
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